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Discovering the causes of cancer and the means of prevention

Radiation Epidemiology Branch: Staff Spotlight

Sara Schonfeld

Sara Schonfeld, Ph.D., is a staff scientist in the Radiation Epidemiology Branch (REB). No stranger to REB, Sara first joined the Branch as a summer student in 2004 seeking to apply the cancer epidemiology skills acquired during her M.P.H. program at the George Washington University. The summer turned into a year, during which she was introduced to the fields of second cancers, and occupational and environmental radiation epidemiology.

“It quickly became clear that my next step was a Ph.D. in epidemiology, which I pursued at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.” Dr. Schonfeld said. “I was very fortunate to remain a part of REB, completing pre- and postdoctoral training in the Branch.”

For her doctoral dissertation, Dr. Schonfeld pooled data from four DCEG prospective studies to investigate the associations between hormone-related risk factors and risk of breast and endometrial cancers among nulliparous women (i.e., women having no previous births). As a fellow, she also collaborated on studies concerned with medical, environmental, and occupational radiation exposures, and developed a strong research interest in the association between ionizing radiation exposure and cancer risk. Much of the research was conducted in the Russian Federation and Kazakhstan, which allowed her to combine training in epidemiology with her undergraduate degree in Russian studies.

During the second year of her postdoc, Dr. Schonfeld sought advice from REB mentors and colleagues on next steps. A conversation with Dr. Elaine Ron, then branch chief, set the wheels in motion for a very big change.

“I vividly remember her saying to me ‘You have to go away. You may choose to come back but you have to go away for some time. You can’t do all of your growing up as an epidemiologist in one place.’” Dr. Schonfeld said.

Dr. Schonfeld took her advice seriously and by early 2012, accepted a position at the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in Lyon, France. While at IARC, she worked primarily on developing a retrospective cohort study of occupational asbestos exposure and cancer mortality. Although the exposure of interest was different, her previous experiences from REB studies of radiation in the Russian Federation provided a strong foundation for the work at IARC. In return, Dr. Schonfeld gained tremendous training at IARC, particularly in terms of fieldwork and project leadership.

In early 2016, Dr. Schonfeld returned to REB to take on the role of staff scientist. Currently, she supports Branch research to explore the relationship between cancer treatment and the development of second malignancies.